Vanished without a trace

Julie Wheelwright
Sunday, 29th July 2001
Scotland on Sunday

Leigh Miner on the right

Laid between the coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver has been consistently voted the worldís most desirable city. Driving through its downtown core from the West Side, it is easy to see why. The city sparkles under an azure sky, with the sun glinting off its smoked glass and chrome towers crouched beneath snow-encrusted mountains that boast Olympic ski runs. With soft pink blossoms floating from the cherry trees that line the streets, the city seems postcard perfect, its inlets woven together by bridges spanning deep green waters, edged by empty beaches and manicured parks of giant cedars.

But travel eastwards along Hastings Street and the picture shifts sharply. Novelist Douglas Coupland, who lives on the cityís north-west shore, describes it as a place in chronic pain. "The alleys feature snowdrifts of syringes, bleach bottles, alcohol swab wrappers, orange syringe tips and tiny plastic bags used to hold crack crystals. The amount of drug paraphernalia littering the place is astounding."

Statistics confirm Couplandís impressions, with the local needle exchange handing out more needles each year (about 2.4 million) than any other centre in North America. The neighbourhood drop-in centre for sex-trade workers estimates that 80% of its clients are HIV positive.

Four years ago Vancouverís downtown eastside was declared a medical health disaster with the highest reported HIV infection rates in the Western world. More than 80% of female intravenous drug users report being active in the sex trade where clients routinely refuse to use a condom.

As dusk falls, the streets are suddenly thick with women, bending towards car windows on bruised legs, wearing tiny skirts, chunky leather jackets and care-worn expressions. Some are as young as 14 and even 12-year-olds are no longer uncommon. This is Vancouverís Low Track stroll where oral sex costs about £2 and life, it seems, is just as cheap.

After the disappearance of 31 women, mostly sex-trade workers, since 1995 from this six-block area, which boasts the countryís most impoverished postal-code, the government posted a reward of 100,000 (£40,000) for information leading to the womenís whereabouts.

There had been a brief lull since 1998 but last December Dawn Teresa Crey and Debra Lynne Jones melted away from the streets; in April a third woman, Brenda Anne Wolfe, who had been missing since February 1999, was added to the official police list. In March last year Jennifer (Jennie) Lynn Furminger, 28, was reported as missing from the area of Cordova and Jackson, a corner well known to prostitutes and johns. Details were as sketchy as information about Furmingerís life on the streets; she is 170cm tall, weighs 56kg and has a tattoo of a large cat on her right shoulder.

"The really vulnerable women are the ones being targeted here," says Deb Mearns, who works with the Vancouver police to teach sex-trade workers how to keep safe on the cityís meanest streets.

The story has also attracted the mediaís attention, with a slot on the Americaís Most Wanted television series last year, a major book due for release and constant articles in the local press. But only recently has the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) acknowledged that the women may have been murdered. This spring, the local police formed a joint task force with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) which indicates their growing concern about a possible serial killer.

A local newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, which conducted its own investigation of press and police files, concluded that there were at least 60 solved and unsolved homicides of women working in the provinceís sex trade during the past two decades. But so far, police have been hampered by the lack of witnesses and evidence; none of the women were seen being taken into a car against their will, nor are there reports of violent scenes and there are no bodies.

The RCMP and the cityís police department joint task force is now cross-referencing databases and leads. There is, however, mounting frustration with the police force, which is under increasing fire from the local community and the relatives of the missing women. "The case wasnít advancing," says RCMP Corporal Grant Learned about the decision to organise the joint task force. "The investigative process had run its course, all the leads had been followed up."

While the police make efforts to prove their commitment to the hunt for the missing women, a local advocacy group made up of former and current sex-trade workers has released a damning report of police practices on the downtown eastside and a former detective inspector has accused the VPD of putting politics above the investigation.

The Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE) report found that sex-trade workers were at the same risk of being assaulted by city police as they were by pimps and that womenís allegations of rape or assault were not taken seriously. A survey of 183 prostitutes found that a third had been the victim of an attempted murder in the past year but 79% did not report these incidents to the police.

Meanwhile, detective inspector Kim Rossmo, who is a plaintiff in a wrongful dismissal suit against the Vancouver police, testified that the VPD had bungled the investigation. Rossmo said investigators dismissed his skill as an expert criminologist and when he suggested in November 1998 that the press be informed a serial killer was at work, the idea was dismissed. "Many people in the VPD feel the same about this - frustration," said Rossmo, adding that the sex, race and low social status of the missing persons were behind the VPDís poor progress.

Rossmoís comments will fuel a smouldering resentment among the families and friends of the vanished women. "I think the police would have been more helpful if a purebred dog had gone missing," says Erin McGrath, the sister of Leigh Miner, a drug-addicted woman in her twenties who has been missing since Christmas 1993. "We tried to keep up with the police but it was demeaning and it felt, after a time, to be pointless because they overtly did not care that my sister had gone missing." Minerís last address was on the downtown eastside, she was heavily addicted to heroin and had worked in prostitution in California - all factors that would link her with the other cases.

"Weíd call the police whenever there was news a body had been found," says McGrath who, along with her mother, has raised Minerís daughter since her disappearance. "The police were callous, distant and unprofessional."

Friends and relatives of the missing women also claim the number may be much higher than the official list of 31 because the police have been selective about their criteria. The Downtown Eastside Womenís Center, a local drop-in where women working on the streets can get advice and seek refuge, puts the number from their own records at 120. Warren Goulding, whose recent book about a serial killer in Saskatchewan who preyed on aboriginal women, says national police estimates suggest as many as 600 aboriginal women are missing from Canadaís four Western provinces.

Gouldingís book, Just Another Indian: A Serial Killer and Canadaís Indifference, chronicles the investigation and eventual capture in 1996 of John Crawford, who preyed exclusively on native women. Goulding criticises the Saskatchewan police for their failure to warn the public that a murderer was stalking aboriginal women and believes that racist attitudes slowed the investigation.

There are parallels with Vancouver, where aboriginal women make up a third of all sex-trade workers, although they constitute barely 2% of the general population. Goulding believes that the huge publicity now surrounding the missing women may be crucial in bringing about an arrest. "The bizarre thing about Vancouver is that you can get rid of people in the ocean or in the mountains, but someone always sees something." The chances of a killer silently and secretly disposing of a body seems increasingly unlikely.

There is little, however, that relatives and friends can do to resolve the agony of these disappearances. Among those who wait is the family of Marcie Crieson, a naive high school drop out who was 20 when she went missing. Like Miner, she was last seen around Christmas time. After being released from the local prison on charges of prostitution on December 27, 1998, Crieson failed to make court on charges of drug possession.

At her mother Gloriaís apartment a few blocks away, there were a roasted turkey, unwrapped presents, her boyfriend and relatives waiting for her. Crieson had rung from the police station that afternoon to say she just needed some cigarette money and would be home soon. When she failed to show up that night, her uncle, Skip Marcella, tracked down Criesonís friends, who said they had seen her at about 1am working the corner from the Drake Hotel in the downtown eastside. Then, nothing.

Marcella says his sister Gloria and Criesonís sister Melanie, who has kicked her drug habit and no longer works the streets, are still waiting for her to ring with news about a new life. "They keep thinking that sheís gone somewhere like Tijuana but that phone call ainít gonna happen."

Marcella says he knew that both sisters were in extreme danger working on the street and he tried hard to get them home. "Every couple of nights Iíd go down there and one would be working a corner, the other sister on another."

Whatever the weather, they would wait for a pick-up to fund their drug habits, without a coat, their belongings stuffed into a plastic carrier bag. "It was just heartbreaking and I kept telling my sister they canít keep on doing this, somethingís gonna happen."

Something also happened to Michelle Pineaultís 21-year-old daughter Stephanie, who disappeared from the Hotel Patricia in the downtown eastside three years ago. At 3am in early January 1998, Pineault, who was drug addicted, rang her father Scott asking for a lift. The Pineaults (who are separated) usually gave in to her demands. But this time Scott said he would only drive her to a rehab or detox centre. She hung up the telephone and neither parent has seen nor heard from their daughter since.

"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time," says Michelle, her voice wracked with sobs. "We live with so much guilt. Why did her dad decide not to pick her up that one day - would she still be here if we had picked her up?"

Michelle is convinced her daughter would not have left town, cutting all ties with her family, friends and baby son Stephen. Pineault had only started to work in prostitution shortly before she disappeared and wasnít well known. Michelle believes her daughter was murdered and longs for any scrap of evidence to end her constant fantasies.

Even now she searches the crowds whenever she travels through the downtown eastside, or jumps off a bus if she sees a woman with her daughterís hairstyle, the cut of her stride, her lovely face. "Now I think, ĎGod, would I even know what she looks like?í You see a young girl down there who looks not half bad, then the next month sheís barely recognisable."

The last time anyone saw Angela Jardine she was wearing a floating pink ballgown and swanking round as a Ďparticipantí at a day-long conference of drug experts in Vancouverís downtown eastside, entitled, ironically, ĎOut of Harmís Wayí. By late afternoon on November 20, 1998, this 27-year-old was itching for a fix. All day Jardine had been gently pestering Liz Evans, manager of the Portland Hotel, for money. After Evans reluctantly gave Angela 5, the girl in the soiled ballgown drifted from the conference room on unsteady feet, headed towards Powell Street and disappeared without a trace.

A year later, her parents posted a thank-you note on a website devoted to Vancouverís missing women, of whom Jardine officially became number 27. On the first anniversary, Deborah and Ivan Jardine wrote: "Angela vanished under suspicious circumstances. To this day, there have been no clues regarding her disappearance." Drug addicted, learning disabled and a prostitute, Jardine hadnít the resources to start a new life and kick over her traces. Mearns, at the drop-in centre, remembers her well. "She was like a big kid. She was all excited that her mother was sending a package down to her for Christmas. She was mentally about the age of 12 and not someone who would have disappeared."

For Pat deVries, the 63-year-old adoptive mother of Sarah deVries who went missing in April 1998, the downtown eastside became a no-go area after her daughter vanished. "The sight of the downtown area, seeing all the misery there just carved me up inside," says Pat, who now lives in rural Ontario with deVriesí two children, Jeannie and Ben, more than 2,000 miles away. "I got to the point where I didnít want to go downtown to a movie and if I needed to shop I went to the suburbs. I had a frozen area in me which is how I coped with the whole business."

Like many of the missing women, deVries had been working the Low Track since she was in her teens, was drug addicted and HIV positive. Her need for medical supervision, her drug habit, her wide network of friends, clients, boyfriends and dealers were all reasons to keep her in the city.

Pat first learned that deVries was missing when she received a phone call from Wayne Leng, her daughterís friend. Leng, along with Patís other daughter Maggie, who also lives in Vancouver, had become worried because deVries hadnít contacted them recently nor had she picked up her welfare cheque. Deeply worried, Leng began to talk with deVriesí friends in the neighbourhood while Maggie filed a missing persons report with the Vancouver police.

Leng, a car mechanic who had known deVries for six years, remembers the last time he saw her. On April 13 Leng had picked her up at 7pm from the Beacon Hotel on East Hastings Street where she was staying with her boyfriend. They drove back to Lengís apartment where they talked, deVries ate a bowl of Froot Loops and an hour later he drove her back to the Beacon. He stretched across the seat to open the car door for her, saying: "Iíll see you, my friend." She waved him goodbye with, "Iíll call you" and walked off in her blue stretch pants, black stiletto heels and paisley blouse. DeVries became number five on the missing poster.

At the time, deVries had been Ďpartyingí with a friend named Sylvia for five days and when they needed cash to keep going, had worked the cross-section at Princess and Hastings around 3am on April 14. "Sylvia got picked up first, couldnít agree a price with the guy and got out about a minute later," says Leng. In that moment, deVries had vanished into the night. Since then, Leng has started an internet site, put up posters and followed dozens of tips but none have yielded concrete evidence of deVriesí fate.

"She started on drugs early and Iíve been waiting all my life for a phone call from the police saying theyíve found her body," says Pat. "It was a very dangerous and rough life she was leading."

DeVriesí journal, left at Lengís apartment, recounts in brutal detail how a john had attempted to murder her shortly before she disappeared. DeVries describes an early evening when the traffic had just started to pick up along Hastings. She was beginning to feel drug sick and needed money. She waited outside the Astoria Hotel until a car pulled up. "I got in, pulled the door shut and agreed on 40 [dollars] for a BJ [blow job]," she wrote. "His name I donít remember or maybe I just donít want to. Anyway I told him my name, Sarah, and it all started at that moment."

The man repeated her name and asked her questions about her age and where she was from. "Sarah this and Sarah that, it started to scare the hell out of me, it was like he was trying to [psyche] himself up to do something."

He had paid and "acted like he was the nicest people on earth", but was driving as deVries gave him oral sex. Terrified, she realised that she couldnít escape from the car because he had removed the inside door handles and "booby trapped" the car. When he finally stopped on a road "in the middle of nowhere", deVries escaped but was caught, badly beaten and left for dead.

Detective Lori Shenher knows the Low Track well and says the missing women may have been killed by one or more sex offenders. Itís not uncommon for johns to be stopped on the Low Track with Ďkill kitsí of a knife, rope and plastic bags (none of which are illegal) stashed in the boot of their cars.

Shenher, who has worked undercover in the area, knows intimately the dangers the sex-trade workers face. "This stroll over here, the Low Track, thereís a perception of anonymity, itís unbelievable to me the guys I saw there. These people are looking for the weakest and most vulnerable people you can find. These women on the downtown eastside have got very little personal security. Add into that mix that theyíre prostituting themselves and you can see that if someoneís got a wish to harm a woman, theyíre gonna find them."

The relatives and friends, however, are left with the lingering doubt that not everything is being done to solve the conundrum of the missing women. McGrath remembers her clever, beautiful older sister before she became a drug addict and a problem that even the police donít want to know about.

"Itís so hurtful not to be cared about," she says as she begins her own campaign to maintain the publicís interest. "Iím tired of being polite, Iím so damned tired of being polite and being ignored. If Leigh was a cute, blonde girl working in a sun tanning parlour, everybody would be looking for her."

Julie Wheelwright
Sunday, 29th July 2001
Scotland on Sunday

Impending missing women trial much more than a Lower Mainland case-Nov 5, 2002

Leigh Miner vanished Dec 1993

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Updated: August 21, 2016